If people hear something new, they call it a breath of fresh air. Usually the song will be of a new style or by an artist trying to experiment. For Common, however, his sixth album, Be, is a breath of fresh air because he is going backwards: ditching the experimental music for a traditional hip hop sound he hadn’t visited in years. It is a weird kind of regression/progression that brings the rapper back to his roots and still sounding relevant.
For this project, Common wisely hired Kanye West for his soulful beats that were popular with old school hip hop heads and mainstream listeners. And the man doesn’t disappoint here (in fact, he rarely disappoints). Everything feels lean, stripped down, and focused. No more heavy production to distract Common from rhyming at his best because now he had beats that gave him enough space. Common also made sure to make no bets and choose 9 of the best Kanye West beats to fit his style (the other two beats are J Dilla beats that are also worth listening to).
Throughout the album, Common is bent on reclaiming his legendary MC status after briefly losing it in his last album. His storytelling makes glorious returns in “The Corner” and “Testify”. “The Corner” poetically explains the woes of Chicago streets (“It’s hard to breath nights, days are thief like/ The beast roam the streets, the police is Greek-like”). The latter tells a tense tale of a husband accused of murder while his wife tries to testify his innocence.
Here, Common does not try to tread new ground, necessarily. Instead, he gives his individual spin on common topics. Street life is a cornerstone of hip hop but “The Corner” still sounds refreshing with Common’s unique vision. Andre 3000 may have been the first rapper to visualize God as a woman but Common takes it a few steps deeper (“Faithful”). And his classic braggadocio is plentiful here (“Chi City”).
Fans speculated that Be stood for Before Erykah (a ridiculous guess). From the intro, Common makes clear of what he intends to achieve with his album:
I want to be as free as the spirits of those who left
I’m talking Malcom, Coltrane, my man Yusef
Through death-grew conception
New breath and resurrection
For moms, new steps in her direction
In the right way
Told inside is where the fight lay
And everything a nigga do may not be what he might say
Chicago nights stay, stay on the mind
But I write many lives and lay on these lines
Wave the signs of the times
Many say the grind’s on the mind
Shorties blunted-eyed and everyone wanna rhyme
Bush pushing lies, killers immortalized
We got arms but won’t reach for the skies
Waiting for the Lord to rise
I look into my daughter’s eyes
And realize that I’m gonna learn through her
The Messiah, might even return through her
If I’m gonna do it, I gotta change the world through her
Furs and a Benz, gramps wanting ’em
Demons and old friends, pops they hauntin’ him
The chosen one from the land of the frozen sun
When drunk nights get remembered more than sober ones
Walk like warriors, we were never told to run
Explored the world to return to where my soul begun
Never looking back or too far in front of me
The present is a gift
and I just wanna be
Common understood that he strayed too far on Electric Circus, trying to be a rap version of Jimi Hendrix instead of the Chicago b-boy that everyone knows him as. And this time, he elects to be himself and that in itself is refreshing to hear.
Favorite Tracks: “Be (Intro)”, “The Corner”, “Go!”, “Testify”, “Love Is…”, “They Say”